THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN THE SADDLE
or The Girl Miner of Gold Run
LAURA LEE HOPE
Author of "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale," "The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge," "The Moving Picture Girls," "The Bobbsey Twins," "Bunny Brown and His Sister Sue," "Six Little Bunkers at Grandma Bell's," Etc.
New York Grosset & Dunlap Publishers Made in the United States of America
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BOOKS FOR GIRLS
BY LAURA LEE HOPE
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12mo. Cloth. Illustrated.
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THE OUTDOOR GIRLS SERIES
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS OF DEEPDALE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT RAINBOW LAKE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A MOTOR CAR THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN A WINTER CAMP THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN FLORIDA THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT OCEAN VIEW THE OUTDOOR GIRLS ON PINE ISLAND THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN ARMY SERVICE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT THE HOSTESS HOUSE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT BLUFF POINT THE OUTDOOR GIRLS AT WILD ROSE LODGE THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN THE SADDLE
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THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS SERIES
THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT OAK FARM THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS SNOWBOUND THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS UNDER THE PALMS THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT ROCKY RANCH THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS AT SEA THE MOVING PICTURE GIRLS IN WAR PLAYS
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THE BOBBSEY TWINS SERIES
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THE BUNNY BROWN SERIES
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SIX LITTLE BUNKERS SERIES
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Grosset & Dunlap, Publishers, New York Copyright, 1922, by Grosset & Dunlap
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THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN THE SADDLE
I A SUMMER IN THE SADDLE 1
II GREAT HOPES 9
III ENTER PETER LEVINE 22
IV AN IMITATION HOLD-UP 33
V THE HANDSOME COWBOY 43
VI AT THE RANCH 52
VII A SUDDEN STORM 62
VIII ALONG THE TRAIL 72
IX DANGER AHEAD 81
X THE LANDSLIDE 88
XI IN THE CAVE 97
XII IN THE DARKNESS 106
XIII THE LURE OF GOLD 112
XIV A DISCOVERY 120
XV ALLEN ARRIVES 129
XVI A TIP 137
XVII THE NET TIGHTENS 145
XVIII IN THE SHADOWS 154
XIX THE NEW MINE 165
XX THE VIOLINIST AGAIN 173
XXI A STARTLING TALE 180
XXII THE PLAN 188
XXIII GREAT DAYS 198
XXIV THE END OF PETER LEVINE 202
XXV INNOCENT 210
THE OUTDOOR GIRLS IN THE SADDLE
A SUMMER IN THE SADDLE
"Hello, hello! Oh, what is the matter with central!"
The dark-haired, pink-cheeked girl at the telephone jiggled the receiver impatiently while a straight line of impatience marred her pretty mouth.
"Oh dear, oh dear!"
"At last! Is that you, Mollie Billette? I've been trying to get you for the last half hour. What's that? You've been home all morning twiddling your thumbs and wondering what to do with yourself? Of course! I knew it was central's fault all the time! Now listen! Goodness, what are you having over at your house? A jazz dance or something? I can hardly hear you speak for the noise."
"No, it isn't a dance," came back Mollie's voice wearily from the other end of the wire. "It's just the twins. They want to talk to you. Hold the wire a minute while I shut them in the other room."
Followed a silence during which Betty Nelson could distinctly hear the wails of Mollie's little brother and sister as they were ushered forcibly into an adjoining room. Then Mollie's voice again at the phone.
"Hello," she said. "Still there, Betty? Guess I can hear you a little better now. Mother's out, and I've been taking care of the twins. Just rescued the cat from being dumped head down in the flour barrel."
"Sounds natural," laughed the dark-haired, pink-cheeked one, as she visualized Mollie's little brother and sister, Dodo and Paul. They were twins, and always in trouble.
"Anything special you called up about?" asked Mollie's voice from the other end of the wire. "Want to go for a ride or something?"
"Not the kind of ride you mean," said the brown-eyed, pink-cheeked one, with a knowing little smile on her lips.
At the lilt in her voice Mollie, at her end of the wire, sat up and stared inquiringly into the black mouth of the telephone.
"Betty," she said hopefully, "you are hiding something from me. You have something up your sleeve."
"You're right and wrong," giggled Betty. "I'm hiding something from you, but I can't get it up my sleeve, it's too big!"
"Hurry up!" commanded Mollie in terrific accents. "Are you going to tell me what's on your mind, Betty Nelson?"
"When will you be around?" countered Betty.
"In five minutes."
"Betty, wait! Is it good news?"
"The best ever," and Betty rang off.
She twinkled at the telephone for a minute, then called another number.
"That you, Gracie?"
The fair-haired, tall, and very graceful girl at the other end of the wire acknowledged that it was.
"Please suggest something interesting, Betty," she added plaintively, as she took a chocolate from the ever-present candy box and nibbled on it discontentedly. "I woke up with the most awful attack of the blues this morning."
"What, with a whole summer full of blessed idleness before you?" mocked Betty.
"Too much idleness," grumbled Grace. "That's the trouble."
"Enter," said Betty drolly, "Doctor Elizabeth Nelson."
Grace digested this remark for a moment, staring at the telephone in much the same manner as Mollie had done a few minutes before. Then she swallowed the last of her chocolate in such haste that it almost choked her.
"Betty," she said, "I have heard you use that tone before. Is there really something in the wind?"
"Come and see," said Betty and a click at the other end of the wire told Grace that the conversation was over.
"Oh bother!" she cried, her pretty forehead drawn into a frown. "Now I suppose I've got to get dressed and go over there before I can find out what she meant."
In the hall she nearly ran into her mother, who was dressed to go out. Mrs. Ford was a handsome woman, prominent in the social circles of Deepdale. She was kindly and sympathetic, and all who knew her loved her.
So now, as she regarded her mother, a loving smile erased the frown from Grace's forehead.
"I declare, Mother, you look younger than I do," she said fondly. "Whither away so early?"
"The art club, this morning," replied Mrs. Ford, her eyes approving the fair prettiness of her daughter. "Are you going out? I thought you were deep in that new book."
"I was," said Grace, with a sigh for what might have been. "But Betty called up and said she wanted me to come over. There's something in the wind, that's sure, but she wouldn't give me even the teeniest little hint of what it was. I wasn't going at first, but I——"
"Thought better of it," finished Mrs. Ford, with a smile. "Better go," she added, as she opened the door. "My experience with Betty Nelson is that she usually has something interesting to say. Good-by, dear. If any one should 'phone while you are here, will you tell them that I shan't be back till late afternoon?"
Grace promised that she would and moved slowly up the stairs.
Meanwhile Amy Blackford, the last of the trio to whom the dark-haired, pink-cheeked little person who was Betty Nelson had telephoned, had stopped merely to remove the apron from in front of her pink-checked gingham dress and was now flying along the two short blocks that separated her house from the Nelsons'.
As for poor Mollie Billette, she was nearly distracted. Torn with curiosity, as that young person very often was, to know the facts that had prompted Betty's early call, she yet could not satisfy that curiosity. When she had told Betty that she would be around in five minutes she had fully meant to make that promise good. But—she had forgotten the twins!
Upon entering the room where she had locked them while she talked to Betty, she found a sight that fairly took her breath away.
Unfortunately, some one had left an open bottle of ink on the table. One of the twins, deciding to play "savages," had pounced upon the ink bottle as a means of making the play more realistic!
"Oh, Dodo! Oh, Paul! How could you be so naughty?" moaned Mollie, sinking to the floor, while the tears of exasperation rolled down her face.
"Paul did it," accused Dodo, waving a pudgy, ink-stained little fist in the direction of her brother. "He said, 'let's use this ink and play we're savagers——'"
It was upon this scene that Mollie's little French-American mother, Mrs. Billette, came a moment later.
"Oh! Oh!" she cried, raising her hands in the French gesture all French people know so well. "What is this? Mollie, have you gone quite mad?"
Whereupon Mollie shook the tears of woe from her eyes and explained to her mother just what had happened.
"And I was in such a hurry to get to Betty's," she finished dismally. "I just know she has something exciting to tell us. And now I don't suppose I will get there for hours."
"Oh yes, you will," said Mrs. Billette, with the delicious, almost imperceptible, accent she had. "The ink has not yet dried, and luckily there is not much about the room. Run along, dear. I fully realize," she added, with the smile that made Mollie adore her, "that this, with you, is a very important occasion."
"And you are the most precious mother in the world!" cried Mollie, flinging young arms about her mother and giving her a joyful hug. "I might have known you would understand." And before the words were fairly out of her mouth she was flying up the stairs.
When she reached Betty's house at last, out of breath but happy, she found that Grace and Amy were there before her. She found them all, including Betty, up in Betty's room, a pretty place done in ivory and blue, awaiting her coming as patiently as they could.
"Betty wouldn't tell us a thing until you came," was the greeting Grace flung at her.
"So don't be surprised if you aren't very popular around here," laughed Betty, sitting very straight in her wicker chair, feet stretched out and crossed in front of her, hands tightly clasped in her lap. Her face was a pretty picture of animation.
"Who cares for popularity?" cried Mollie, as she flung her sport hat on the bed and turned to face Betty. "Betty Nelson, bring out that surprise."
"Who said it was a surprise?" asked Betty tantalizingly, but the next minute her face sobered and she regarded the girls gravely.
"Girls," she said, "I think I see a chance for the most glorious outing we have had yet. How would you like——" she paused and regarded the expectant girls thoughtfully. "How would you like a summer in the saddle?"
"In the saddle?" repeated Grace wonderingly, but Mollie broke in with a quick:
"Betty, do you mean on horseback?"
"Real horses?" breathed Amy Blackford.
"Yes," said Betty, nodding. "That's just exactly what I mean."
"But where are we to do all this?" asked Grace skeptically. "Is somebody giving away steeds for the asking? Wake me up, somebody, when Betty gets through dreaming."
"Keep still, you old wet blanket," cried Mollie. "Can't you see Betty is really in earnest?"
"Never mind them," said Amy, leaning a little breathlessly toward Betty. "Let them fight it out between themselves. What is the great news, Betty?"
"It is great news," said Betty radiantly. "Listen, my children. Mother has received a legacy from a great uncle that she had almost forgotten she had."
"Money?" queried Grace, interested.
"No, that's the best part of it," said Betty. "Oh, girls, it's a ranch, a great big beautiful ranch in the really, truly west!"
"Honest-to-goodness, wild and woolly?" queried Mollie, beaming.
"Better than that," answered Betty with the same lilt to her voice that the girls had heard over the telephone. "I shouldn't wonder if we should find the real old-fashioned, movie kind of cowboys there—sombreros, fur leggings, bandannas, and all."
"But where," interrupted Mollie, who had been waiting with more or less patience for Betty to come to the point, "do we come in, in all this? I fail to see——"
"Oh hush," cried Betty, her eyes dancing. "You interrupt entirely too much. Where do we come in, she wants to know," she paused to bestow a beaming glance on Grace and Amy. "That's the biggest joke of all. Where do we come in? Why, honey dear, we're the whole show!"
"The whole show," they murmured, beginning to see the light.
"You bet," said the brown-haired, rosy-checked one slangily. "Now listen. I think I've about argued mother and dad around to the point where they'll agree to let us have the use of this wild and woolly rancho for a real outdoor adventure. How does that idea strike you?"
"Listen to the child," cried Mollie pityingly. "Such a question!"
"It would be heavenly!" raved Grace. "Think of riding around all day in fur leggings and a sombrero. Wide hats are always becoming to me," she added musingly.
The girls laughed and Betty threw a pillow at her, missing her by a hair's breadth.
"You needn't worry about your hat," laughed Betty. "Reckon there won't be anybody around there to admire you but Indians and broncho busters."
"Oh, aren't the boys coming?" Grace asked, her disappointment in her voice.
"They haven't been asked, silly," Mollie interrupted impatiently. "Tell me, Betty," she cried, turning to the Little Captain. "Is it really certain that we'll have this chance?"
"No, it isn't," admitted Betty, her bright face sobering. "That's why I don't want you to get too excited about it. You see," her voice lowered confidentially, "dad might decide to sell it."
"Sell it!" they cried in dismay, and Grace added, with a decision that made the girls laugh:
"Oh, he mustn't do that until the fall, anyway."
"All right, Gracie," said Betty, with a chuckle. "I'll give dad his orders."
"But why does he want to sell it, Betty?" Amy questioned.
"We-el," said the Little Captain slowly. "You see mother has already received an offer of fifteen thousand dollars for it. There's a ranchman out there, I think his name is John Josephs, or some such name, who seems to want to get hold of our ranch. So his lawyers have offered mother fifteen thousand for it."
"That's a pretty good lot of money," said Amy thoughtfully.
"Yes, it is," agreed Betty. "And dad seems to think that the best thing mother could do would be to take the money and get rid of the ranch. He says it will be a sort of white elephant on our hands, since there isn't very much chance of our going out there to live," she ended, with a chuckle.
"Well," said Grace, with an injured air, "I don't see why you called us all over here just to disappoint us. If your father is going to sell the place, then we certainly sha'n't be able to make ourselves beautiful with bandannas and picturesque hats——"
"Ah, but you did not let me finish," hissed Betty, melodramatically. "We have one ally—my mother."
"Your mother!" cried Mollie, eagerly. "Then she doesn't want to sell the ranch?"
"Right, the first time," cried Betty hilariously. "I think mother has a sneaking notion that she might look pretty good in a cowboy make-up herself. You see," she added, with a twinkle, "mother has never had a chance to own a real honest-to-goodness ranch before."
"Oh, isn't she sweet!" cried Mollie fervently, adding, as one to whom inspiration had come: "I tell you what, Betty, we'll take her with us!"
"How sweet of you," drawled Grace. "Especially since the ranch belongs to her!"
The other girls chuckled and Mollie looked rather sheepish.
"Oh, well," she admitted, "I guess it would be a case of her taking us along."
"And I don't envy her the job," said gentle Amy unexpectedly, while the girls gazed their reproach.
"Betty," said Mollie, "there is one very important thing that I would like to know."
"Well, I'm the original little information bureau," Betty assured her. "What will you have?"
"Does your dad really want to sell the ranch? Or is your mother likely to win out?"
"Oh, mother always gets her way," said Betty confidently, adding: "Besides, the ranch was left to mother, you know, and not to dad. So really she has the say about it."
"Yes, but she might change her mind," said Grace pessimistically. "Fifteen thousand dollars is a lot of money, you know. She might decide to sell the ranch, after all."
"Well," said Betty, with an air of importance that the girls were quick to notice, "there is another reason why mother will probably hold on to the property, for a little while at least."
"Yes?" they queried eagerly.
"You see," Betty continued thoughtfully, "mother has an idea that this John Josephs is a little too anxious to buy the ranch. It's right up in the gold region, you know——"
"Gold!" shrieked Mollie. "You never said a word about gold, Betty Nelson! Do you mean there may be gold——"
"Now she is getting interesting," admitted Grace, shaken out of her usual calm.
"How romantic," murmured Amy, breathing fast.
"Yes," said Betty ruefully. "That's what dad says mother is—romantic! He says there isn't a chance in a thousand that there is real gold anywhere near that ranch——"
"Stop, woman, stop!" cried Mollie, with her most tragic scowl. "Wouldst put an end to all our dreams in one fell swoop——"
"Probably that is all we shall do—just dream," said Betty, insisting upon being practical. "It's an idea of mother's, that's all. But she is really determined to see the ranch, at least, before she makes up her mind whether to sell or not. In fact," she hesitated, colored a little, then went on bravely, "dad has decided to send Allen out there to look up the title. There is some trouble about that, I think——"
"Oh, now we know why she is so anxious to be a little cow girl," teased Grace, while the others regarded Betty's pretty color gleefully.
"Oh, Betty, Betty!" cried Mollie, shaking her head dolefully, "you are altogether hopeless!"
For Allen Washburn, of whom Betty had spoken in connection with the ranch, was a very promising young lawyer. Also this promising young lawyer was very fond of Betty Nelson. And while the girls are shaking their heads over this fact a little time will be taken to describe the Outdoor Girls to those readers who have not already met them and to review briefly the many and varied adventures they had had up to this time.
Betty Nelson, dark-haired, dark-eyed, and rosy-cheeked, was the natural leader of the four Outdoor Girls, a fact which had led to her being dubbed "Little Captain" by the adoring girls. Betty's father, Charles Nelson, had made a good deal of money in his manufacture of carpets, and Betty's mother was a very sweet lady whom the name of Rose fitted exactly.
Next came Mollie Billette, dark-haired and with snapping black eyes, who was almost as French in her manner as her very French mother.
Readers of the present volume must already feel very well acquainted with Grace Ford. Grace was the Gibson type, tall and slender and fair-haired and very pretty, with a decided liking for looking in mirrors.
Last of the quartette came Amy Blackford. Amy was the ward of John and Sarah Stonington, and for a long time she had thought her own name was Stonington. The mystery of her past had been cleared up, however, and Amy had come into her own. Shy, gentle, sweet, she was beloved and protected by the more hardy and active Betty and Mollie. And Amy, as shy girls sometimes will, had begun to think very much of Grace Ford's attractive brother, Will—which is a reminder that it is time to introduce "the boys."
Allen Washburn and his open fondness for Betty have already been spoken of. Allen was tall, nearly six feet. Sunburned and handsome of face and quick of action, Allen attracted every one wherever he went. And, truly, Betty was no exception to this rule! Allen had been one of the first to volunteer his services to the good old army of the U. S. A., and while he had gone over only a buck private, he had come back a lieutenant.
There was Will Ford, Grace's brother, whom Grace and Amy both adored. Will had been in the secret service when our country entered the war, and because of this he had been the victim of considerable misunderstanding. Afterward he had joined the army with the other boys. This was after some skillful secret service work that won the praise of the government, as well as the fervent admiration of the boys and girls.
The other two boys were Frank Haley and Roy Anderson who had come into the little group because of their friendship for Will and Allen. They were fine, clean-cut, likable boys, who had come through the war with colors flying.
The young folks had lived all their lives in Deepdale, a thriving little city with a population of about fifteen thousand people and situated in the heart of New York State. Deepdale was situated on the Argono River, a beautiful and romantic stream where pleasure craft of all sorts disported themselves. A branch line of the railroad connected with the main line directly to what the four Outdoor Girls believed to be the most wonderful of all cities, New York.
The name of "Outdoor Girls" had come to the quartette from the fact that they invariably spent their summer vacations, and winter holidays also, in some sort of outdoor sport. They could ride, swim, play tennis, drive, and, in fact, do everything that is expected of the athletic young girl of to-day.
They would never forget that first tramping tour when they had tramped for miles over the country, meeting with a great many unusual adventures on the way, as related in the first volume of this series, entitled, "The Outdoor Girls of Deepdale." Nor those other times at Rainbow Lake, in Florida, at Ocean View, and later at Pine Island, where they had come across that marvelous, mysterious gypsy cave.
Then had come the war with the boys on the other side, and the girls doing their "bit" at a Hostess House. And a little later what black distress overwhelmed them, when Will Ford was reported wounded and Allen's name was among the missing! This all happened while they were at Bluff Point taking a much-needed vacation from their work at the Hostess House.
In the volume directly preceding this, entitled "The Outdoor Girls at Wild Rose Lodge," the girls had had same very exciting experiences. An old man, Professor Dempsey, by name, who had retired to a little log cabin in the woods to recover his health, had chanced to do the girls a very great favor. Of course the girls were grateful to him and were very much interested when he told them of his two sons who were in the war. Later, when the girls read of the death of his two sons in the paper, they went to the old man's lonely cabin in the woods, but found themselves too late. According to a friendly neighbor, the old man had become temporarily insane at the terrible news, had wrecked his cabin in an insane frenzy, and disappeared.
Later, at Wild Rose Lodge, the girls were frightened several times by a strange apparition lurking in the woods around the lodge and Moonlight Falls, a beautiful fall of water not far from the cottage where the girls were staying. Later the boys came home from France and helped the girls solve the mystery.
And now here was Betty proposing another outing that promised to be more fun than any the Outdoor Girls had had yet. No wonder that in the clamor of their excited questions and answers no one heard the telephone ringing noisily in the hall.
Finally the Nelsons' maid came trudging up the stairs to answer it herself.
"If I can hear myself think," she grumbled, as she took the receiver from the hook. "With all them girls a-gabberin' an' a-talkin' at the top o' their lungs. Hello—I can't hear you—you'll have to talk louder—you don't know the noise they is in this house. Miss Betty?—jus' a minute——"
"A gen'leman to speak to you, Miss Betty," she announced a moment later, looking in on the hilarious girls. "An' le's hope you can hear him better'n I could, that's all," she grumbled, as Betty pushed by her in the doorway and gave her a friendly pat on the shoulder.
"Oh, they'll keep quiet now, all right," she said, with a laughing glance over her shoulder at her chums. "They'll want to hear what I have to say."
At which taunt the girls started such a dreadful clamor that she really had all she could do to hear Allen at the other end of the wire. Oh, yes, it was Allen!
"Sech a noise," grumbled the maid, as she trudged down the steps again. "I never did see sech wild uns!"
"Hello, hello, Allen," called Betty into the telephone. "The girls are here and—what's that? At Walnut Street? All right, that will be fine. I can't talk now. Tell you why later. Yes, we'll be there. Don't be silly. Good-by!"
Her face was flushed when she confronted the girls again.
"The boys have a half holiday—it's Saturday, you know," she told them, while they regarded her mischievously. "And they want us to pick them up in the car, get some lunch somewhere, and make a day of it. I told him we would."
"By 'him' I suppose you mean Allen," said Mollie, to which Betty ducked her a bow and the other girls giggled. "I like their nerve wanting us to pick them up. Why doesn't Frank come for us in his big car?"
"Allen figured it would take too long for them to come home and get it."
"My, they must be in a hurry to see us," said Grace, with a simper that sent the girls off into gales of laughter.
"Well," said Betty finally, "are you coming, or are you not?"
For answer Mollie jumped up, pressed a hat upon Grace's indignant head, handed Amy her coat, and crushed her own sport hat down on her dark hair.
"Be this our answer," she said dramatically.
ENTER PETER LEVINE
It is to be feared that the boys did not have as pleasant a time on that Saturday afternoon motor drive as they had hoped to have. For, whereas the girls should have showered their attentions upon them, the boys, they insisted upon talking about nothing but Gold Run Ranch, which was the name of the property left to Mrs. Nelson by her great uncle.
"You aren't very complimentary to us," Frank grumbled, as he hunched himself over the wheel of Mollie's car. "You seem mighty glad to go out to this forsaken old ranch where you won't see us for the whole summer."
"I guess we can stand it if you can," Mollie responded lightly, which only caused him to glower the more.
"Now I'll say Allen knew what he was doing when he studied law," remarked Roy Anderson gloomily, as he glanced over his shoulder at young Allen Washburn, who was driving Betty's neat little roadster with Betty herself beside him. "He sure falls in soft on this job."
"Meaning, I suppose," drawled Grace, "that he will have the pleasure of our company at Gold Run Ranch. Never mind, old boy, you needn't look so dreadfully gloomy. Have a chocolate and brace up."
"You give it to me," said Roy, laughing. Grace obediently popped a large juicy one into his mouth. It may be remarked that after this performance he really did look more cheerful.
"Anyway, we'll be back sometime, I suppose," said Mollie, continuing on the subject that was uppermost in her mind.
"Yes, if we don't run away with some of those handsome cowboys," put in Amy, with a chuckle. "Betty says they abound around Gold Run Ranch."
The girls giggled, but Will looked fierce.
"You had better not," he said, and though his look was for all the girls, Amy knew that the words were for her. She colored prettily and promised with her eyes that she wouldn't.
Grace caught this by-play as she munched a chocolate grumpily. Adoring her brother Will as she did, she had always been a little jealous of his fancy for Amy.
"Anyway, they don't have to be so silly in public," she told herself resentfully. As she roused herself from her musing, she heard Mollie say, with a laugh:
"Don't be surprised if we come home with our pockets full of gold. Mrs. Nelson thinks there is some of it about there."
"Oh, are you still talking about that silly old ranch?" Grace broke in petulantly. "I don't know why you are getting so excited about it when there is more than a chance that we sha'n't go at all."
"Hooray!" cried Frank, and stepped on the accelerator.
Mollie, beside him, turned to look at him coldly.
"I'm glad you feel that way about it, Frank Haley," she said primly. "But I'm very sorry to say we don't."
"Now, I have put my foot in it," cried Frank ruefully, turning his irresistible smile full upon her. "What shall I do to make up, Mollie? Hold your hand or something?"
His free hand closed over hers, but she snatched her own away with indignation that ended in a chuckle.
"Tend to your knitting," she warned him. "Didn't you see that we almost ran over that dog?"
But however much they might joke about the possibility of their not realizing their dreams for the summer, the Outdoor Girls were really worried about it, and the next few days were anxious ones for them.
Suppose Mrs. Nelson should yield to her husband's arguments and resolve to sell the ranch after all? For awhile it almost seemed as though she were about to do this very thing, and the suspense nearly drove the girls frantic.
Then something happened to turn the tide in their direction. And how the girls afterwards blessed that loud-necktied, check-suited man!
It was Betty who came to the door to admit this angel in disguise, it being the hired girl's day out. Her first glance at the stranger served to stamp him as one of those loud-voiced, flashily dressed persons commonly referred to as "sports," and at this first glance Betty took a violent dislike to him.
However, being accustomed to treat every one with kindliness, she asked him gravely whom he wished to see.
"Is Mrs. Nelson at home?" he asked ingratiatingly.
"Why, yes," hesitated Betty, then her natural courtesy getting the better of the dislike she felt for this person, she added politely: "Won't you come in? I will call mother."
With blandly murmured thanks the owner of the checked suit stepped over the threshold, his eyes still on Betty to such an extent that she was glad to be able to slip upstairs out of his sight.
"Mother," she explained hurriedly, finding that lady in her pretty dressing room, "there's a horrid person downstairs who wants to see you. I don't like his looks, and if you don't want to see him I can tell him you aren't at home——"
"Heavens, Betty, is he as bad as all that?" asked Mrs. Nelson, as she rose hastily and gave an automatic pat to her hair. "I hope he doesn't steal the silver. You shouldn't have left him alone, dear——" and with these words she swept out of the room and down the stairs.
Betty heard her greet the man, and then slipped off to her own room and picked up some half-finished embroidery.
"I hope he doesn't bother mother too much," she mused aloud. "I never saw a more unpleasant looking person in my life. I wonder what he can want, anyway."
It was fully half an hour later that she heard the closing door downstairs that told her their unwelcome visitor had left. A minute later her mother herself opened the door of Betty's room, looking so troubled and unsettled that Betty jumped to her feet in quick alarm.
"Mother, did that man say anything to make you feel bad?" she cried. "Because, if he did——"
"No, no, dear," said Mrs. Nelson, sinking into a chair, while her eyes sought the window thoughtfully. "I am worried, that's all."
Betty drew a low chair over beside her mother, and, sitting down, took Mrs. Nelson's hand in both her own.
"Tell me, dear," she urged.
Mrs. Nelson drew her troubled gaze away from the window and looked at the Little Captain intently.
"Betty," she said, "there is something strange about this Gold Run Ranch of ours. This man——"
"Yes?" prompted Betty, as her mother paused.
"This man who called this morning wanted to buy the ranch for a western client of his. It seems this client is willing to pay me my own price—within reasonable limits of course. He seemed so strangely eager to make a deal with me——"
"Yes?" prompted Betty again, beginning to look worried herself.
"Well," continued Mrs. Nelson, "I decided then and there that I wouldn't sell to anybody."
"Oh, Mother!" Betty was all eagerness now, "do you really mean it?"
"Yes, I do," said Mrs. Nelson, determination replacing uncertainty. "There must be something unusual about Gold Run or John Josephs and this man, too, wouldn't be so anxious to get it away from me. I am certainly not going to let them drive me into selling, until I see my property at least."
"Good for you, Mother!" cried Betty enthusiastically. "I've been fearfully worried for fear you wouldn't see it that way. Did you tell the man in the check suit that?"
"No, I didn't," said Mrs. Nelson, smiling as she pressed Betty's hand. "Now you will see what a schemer your mother is, my dear. I told him I hadn't definitely decided yet on any course, that I had already had a very good offer for my ranch, and that he would have to see Allen Washburn, our attorney. I wanted Allen to have a chance to size this man up and see if he has the same impression of him that I had."
"Mother," breathed Betty admiringly, "I think you are wonderful." Then after a little pause, she added shyly: "You really think a great deal of—of Allen's ability, don't you, Mother?"
"I do, dear," said Mrs. Nelson, stroking the brown head gently. Then she added with a hint of mischief in her voice: "Your father and I have come to feel toward him almost as if he were our son."
"Oh—" murmured Betty, very faintly.
Two days went by—anxious ones for the girls. In the Nelson home, this time in the pretty living room, Allen Washburn was now a guest.
"Well," Mrs. Nelson said, with more than a hint of eagerness in her voice, "what did you think of our loudly-dressed friend, Allen?"
"Was he as bad as Mrs. Nelson's description makes him out to be?" asked Mr. Nelson, smiling genially through a cloud of cigar smoke.
Betty, in a corner of the lounge, was trying her best to be calm while she waited eagerly for Allen's reply.
"I don't know just how Mrs. Nelson described this fellow to you, I'm sure," he answered, with a smiling glance toward Betty's mother. "But I'm quite sure that she didn't say anything bad enough."
"Then you didn't like him either?" asked Mrs. Nelson quickly.
"I neither liked him nor trusted him," Allen replied decidedly, adding with a wry smile: "He calls himself Peter Levine, but I'm willing to wager about anything I have that that isn't his real name."
"You think he's a sharper then?" Mr. Nelson interjected.
"Yes, sir," responded Allen, his young face earnestly intent. "He looks to me like one of these confidence men who abound in the western boom towns—men who can talk the other fellow into putting his last cent into some 'sure thing.' 'Sure thing,'" he repeated disgustedly. "The only sure thing about most of those schemes is the certainty of 'going bust' and losing every penny you have in the world."
"And yet," Mr. Nelson commented, "these sharpers, 'confidence men,' as you call them, often manage to keep just within the law."
"Oh yes," said Allen, "they manage to keep the letter of the law—sometimes. But that is just a caution to save their own necks. It's the spirit of the law that they violate. But we are getting away from the point," he added, pulling himself up short with an apologetic smile toward Mrs. Nelson. "We were speaking of this Peter Levine. My summing up of him is that he is entirely untrustworthy."
Mrs. Nelson shot a triumphant glance at her husband.
"You see?" she said. "I was sure Allen would agree with me."
"Of course I may be mistaken," Allen continued, rather hesitantly. "But I have a very distinct impression, a sort of seventh sense we fellows in the law game call it, that this Levine is in league with John Josephs, the man that offered you fifteen thousand for the ranch."
"Oh!" said Mrs. Nelson, startled. "How can you know that?"
"I don't know it," Allen told her. "I only suspect."
"Then what would you advise us to do?"
"Hold tight and not sell till you have had a chance to look matters over on the ground—not from a distance."
"Well," said Mr. Nelson rising resignedly and knocking the ashes from his cigar, "I suppose that settles it. I shall have to leave my business to go to smash," he added, with a chuckle, "while I take my family into a barbarous land where every second man you meet has designs on a well-filled pocketbook——"
But he got no further, for Betty had run over to him and turned him imperiously around till his smiling eyes looked down into her gleeful ones.
"Daddy," she cried, "do you really mean it? We can all go to Gold Run—you and mother and the girls? We'll have to have the girls, you know!" she ended on a pleading note.
"Oh yes, of course," said Mr. Nelson resignedly. "We will have to have the girls."
It was a very radiant Betty who, a few minutes later, saw Allen Washburn to the door.
"And to think," she murmured, while Allen smiled down at her, "that I didn't like that perfect angel, Peter Levine, at first. Why, I should have welcomed him with open arms!"
"Why?" asked Allen, taken by surprise.
"Don't you know?" asked Betty, mischievously wide-eyed. "If he hadn't happened along just when he did our glorious adventure would have dwindled into a might-have-been. Why, I could love him for it."
"Good-night, I'm going!" ejaculated Allen, and before Betty could gasp he had flung out of the door.
"Where are you going?" she called, laughter in her voice.
"To kill Peter Levine," growled a voice out of the darkness, and Betty, closing the door very softly, chuckled to herself.
AN IMITATION HOLD-UP
It was all over. The bustling days of preparation for the long trip, during which the girls had hardly had time to give vent to their excitement, had passed, and here they were actually finding their places in the puffing, western bound train.
"Here's number five," Grace said, as she slid into a velvet-covered seat with a sigh of thankfulness. "Who is coming in here with me?"
"Guess I'm elected," laughed Betty. "And here's number seven for Mollie and Amy, and mother and dad are in six right across the way. That completes the family party."
They were hardly settled when there was a last warning cry of "All aboard" and the train began to move ever so slowly from the station.
The girls peered out to wave good-by to the boys and some of their other friends who had come to see them off. The young fellows looked rather gloomy—all except Allen. The latter shouted something that they took to be "See you later!" and then the train swept around a curve, hiding the station from view.
"Well," said Grace, with a sigh, as she opened her grip to fish for the inevitable candy box, "the boys seemed to take our flitting pretty hard. They looked as if we were already dead and buried."
"Far from it," murmured Betty happily, her eyes on the ever changing view from the window. "I feel as if we were just beginning to live."
The hours of the morning passed like minutes to the girls, and they were surprised when the porter came through with his "Foist call fo' dinnah!"
The afternoon passed uneventfully, and they amused themselves by making up stories about their fellow passengers. There was the quaint little man in number four who reminded them of Professor Arnold Dempsey and who might very easily have been a professor, judging from the number of books he carried.
Then there was the freckled-faced small boy in number three whose antics kept his mother in a continual state of "nerves." Once when he bounced one of those implements commonly known as "spit balls" off of the bookish little man's bald head, the girls thought they would die trying to stifle their merriment.
Then there was the very pretty, but much be-powdered and rouged girl behind them in number nine. Grace embarrassed Betty very much by turning around to look at her every five minutes or so.
"She's a moving picture actress or something, I'm sure of it," Grace confided in Betty's unsympathetic ear. "I wonder if I could fix my hair the way she does. She fascinates me."
"She seems to," Betty retorted dryly, adding with a twinkle. "You may be able to fix your hair like hers—though I doubt it—but please remember that your mother doesn't want you to use rouge."
"Well, you know I wouldn't do that," said Grace in a huff, adding maliciously, "I guess you are just jealous, that's all."
"Uh-huh, that must be it," said Betty, with an unruffled good-nature that made Grace secretly ashamed of herself.
"I'm sorry, Betty," she said after a rather long pause, adding generously: "You don't need to be jealous of anybody."
"Thanks," Betty answered, with a smile. "I knew you didn't mean it, dear."
And so the long hours of the afternoon wore away, dusk came, shrouding the swiftly moving landscape in a veil of mystery. So engrossed were the girls in contemplation of the changing beauty of nature that it seemed almost sacrilege when the blatant lights of the train flashed forth, bringing them violently back to a realization of time and place.
"Don't you want any supper?" Mr. Nelson was asking, in his pleasant voice. "It isn't like the Outdoor Girls to overlook meal time."
"Far be it from us to spoil our good reputation," cried Mollie buoyantly, and away they rushed to the dressing room to wash for supper. Though dining on a train was no novelty to the girls, they never lost the keenness of their first delight in the experience.
"It's fascinating," Mollie remarked once, spearing desperately at an elusive potato as the train jerked and jolted over the rails at sixty miles an hour, "to see how often you can raise your coffee cup without spilling the coffee all over your food!"
On this night at supper Mollie was so screamingly funny that the girls had all they could do to keep their hilarity from making them conspicuous.
Mr. and Mrs. Nelson at a table for two across the aisle smiled indulgently at their charges, and once Mrs. Nelson met her husband's glance and chuckled fondly.
"Pretty nice set of girls?" she said softly.
"Pretty nice!" Mr. Nelson agreed.
"I'm beginning to wish we were at Gold Run now," confided Mollie, after dining. She and Amy had slipped into the seat opposite Betty and Grace.
"Oh, I think it's all fun," cried Betty, for she was always the last of the Outdoor Girls to feel tired. "We change at Chicago to-morrow afternoon," she added. "And then two more nights on the train, and then Gold Run!"
"Oh, that sounds good," cried Mollie, adding eagerly: "Tell me, Betty, shall we be able to choose any horse we want for our own particular mount?"
"Oh, yes," said Betty, adding with a smile: "It will be interesting to see the kind of horse each one of you will choose. Amy will like the gentle one, Grace will choose hers for its looks and yours will be the most vicious one in the pack, Mollie."
"Well, I like that!" said Mollie unperturbed. "She wants to kill me off even before I get there."
"Pack?" murmured Amy. "Is a 'pack' of horses right?" But no one answered her.
"I wonder," mused Grace dreamily, "if there will be a tan one—all tan, you know, without even a spot of any other color——"
"Oh, of course," laughed Betty. "If we haven't an all tan one in the corrals at Gold Run, we'll send to the nearest ranch and have one imported for you. Don't worry your little head about that."
A little while after that they stopped at a water station, and most of the passengers got off to stretch their cramped limbs. And, as the conductor informed them that they would be there for fifteen minutes at least, the girls followed the general example.
However, in their enthusiasm at finding the good old solid earth under their feet once more, they wandered too far, and the warning toot of the starting train found them quite a distance from the platform.
They had not earned the title of Outdoor Girls for nothing, however, and by sprinting for all they were worth they were able to make the last car just in the nick of time.
"Whew, that was a close call," said Betty as they made their way, panting, through to their own car, where Mr. and Mrs. Nelson were looking frantically for them. "No more water stations for us."
Darkness fell, and the porters moved about, making up berths and answering the hundred and one insistent calls of the passengers.
The girls went to bed with no protest whatever and were soon sleeping the sleep of healthy youth. It was toward midnight that they were rather rudely jerked out of this beautiful sleep by a sudden and almost violent stopping of the train.
Betty, who was sleeping in a lower berth, she and Grace having decided to take turns, sat up and peered out of the grimed window into the gloom. No station lights greeted her, as she expected confidently they would. Nothing but inky, startling blackness.
That she was not the only one roused was proved by the subdued sound of voices raised in sleepy protest.
"They ought to put that engineer in prison for stopping like that," said a man's voice.
"Gee! I thought it was a wreck, sure," came another surly voice.
At this moment a couple of legs dangled themselves over the side of Betty's berth and in another minute the owner of them slid down beside Betty. Betty giggled nervously, but Grace clutched her arm and shook it.
"Listen!" she said. "There's nothing to laugh about. This is a hold-up, that's what it is! You know what your father said about there being a lot of them around this place."
That this conclusion had been reached by some one else in the car was proved by a woman's voice that rose shrilly above the rest.
"It's a hold-up, that's what it is!" she cried, adding, with what seemed to Betty ridiculous panic: "Oh, what shall I do, what shall I do?"
"Better stop making a fuss, first off," growled another masculine voice, and again Betty giggled nervously.
"Goodness, I hope I don't have to get out in my nightie," she said, and poked her head out through the curtains.
"Look out," warned Grace, pulling her back. "You may get shot or something."
"Don't be silly," retorted Betty, not altogether decided whether to be frightened or amused by the situation. "There isn't anything out there but a lot of funny looking heads sticking through the curtains."
"I don't see how you can laugh about it," said Grace, through chattering teeth. "I don't think it would be any j-joke to have all our m-money taken from us——"
"Sh-h—be quiet," warned Betty, peeping again through the slit in the curtain. "Somebody's coming. Listen!"
Grace listened, and so, evidently, did every one else in the car. No wonder that, scared though she undoubtedly was, Betty found humor in the situation. Heads of every kind and description stuck through the curtains, women's, some in boudoir caps, some without, men's heads, either bald or with hair grotesquely ruffled by sleep, and on every face depicted every one of the varied emotions which have disturbed the human race since time began. And there they were, all frozen to immobility by the sound of two men's voices raised in heated discussion.
Then the owners of the voices came into view, and the expression on all the faces changed to bewildered amazement. Instead of the masked bandit which they had half expected to see there was a very portly and very excited gentleman and with him was a conductor, not so portly but just as excited.
"I tell you," the conductor was saying, his face red with wrath, "you are violating the rules of the company by flagging this train for a personal matter——"
"You have told me that before," roared the portly gentleman, waxing almost apoplectic. "And I've told you I don't care a hang for the rules of the company. What I want to find is my daughter and that young scamp she ran away with. And if you don't help me, I'll wring your neck!"
"I tell you there is no couple answering your description on this train," rasped the conductor, as the two made their way, shouting and gesticulating, through the two rows of amazed heads and so on into the next car.
"Well, I'll be blowed," commented the voice belonging to one of the heads; and as if that were a signal, all the other heads promptly withdrew to the accompaniment of exclamations and laughter.
In the darkness of the berth Betty chuckled.
"Oh, they did look so funny, Gracie," she said. "All those people with their heads stuck out into the aisle. You should have taken a peek."
"Humph," grunted Grace, unsympathetically, as she prepared to climb into her berth again. Then she said: "I hope if that man's daughter takes a notion to run away again, she won't do it on our train, that's all!"
THE HANDSOME COWBOY
Next morning the girls were hilarious over the mirthful episode in the train the night before. Betty and Mollie "took off" the expressions on the faces of their fellow passengers till Amy and Grace shouted with glee.
"Oh, stop it, you two," gasped Grace, finally. "I'm sore from laughing. I think you would make a hit as clowns in a circus."
"My, isn't she complimentary?" lisped Mollie, and the girls went off in fresh gales of merriment.
"I wish," said Grace, after a pause, "that we were going to reach Gold Run this afternoon, instead of Chicago. I'm half afraid to spend another night in the sleeper after the scare we got last night. It might be a real bandit this time."
"Oh, what would we care?" said Betty carelessly. "I'd rather like to meet a train robber, myself."
"About all a bandit could do would be to take our money," added Mollie.
"All!" cried Grace indignantly. "Yes, that's all. And what would we do without any money, I'd like to know!"
"Goodness, we could always sell the ranch," said Betty, so matter-of-factly that the girls chuckled. "We have Peter Levine to fall back on, you know."
"'Peter Levine,'" repeated Amy, then added quickly: "Oh yes, he was the man who wanted your mother to sell the ranch."
"Yes, and it was too bad of you to keep him all to yourself, Betty," said Grace reproachfully.
"You might at least have shown him to the rest of us."
"He wasn't anything to show," said Betty, experiencing again the feeling of distaste she had had for the man. "He was one of the most unpleasant looking men I ever saw. Just the same," she added lightly, "we owe him a lot. If it hadn't been for him we probably wouldn't be sitting in this beautiful train, speeding to our great adventure. I told Allen I could almost love Peter Levine for it."
"You did?" queried Mollie, her eyes dancing. "What did he say?"
"He left me rather suddenly," said Betty, with a chuckle at the memory. "He said he was on his way to kill Peter."
"Poor Allen," laughed Grace. "It must be awful to be that way. When is he coming out to Gold Run, Betty?"
"As soon as he finishes this case he is on now," answered Betty, flushing in spite of herself as she thought of Allen. "There is really no great hurry about it, you know. Dad has made up his mind to take a regular vacation while he's about it, and I imagine mother won't care if she never gets home."
That afternoon they changed trains at Chicago, bemoaning the fact that they had not time to see something of the great city before they traveled farther west. There was only half an hour between trains and, as every one knows, there can be little sightseeing done in that limited space of time. As it was, for some reason they could not ascertain, the outgoing train was over an hour late in starting. If they had known this fact in advance they might have managed to spend their time more profitably than in cooling their heels in the station waiting room.
As it was, it was a rather disgruntled set of girls who boarded the train for Gold Run and allowed Mr. Nelson and the porter to find their seats for them.
"I don't see why trains can't be on time," grumbled Mollie, as she peered at the rather distorted image of herself in the narrow mirror between the windows. "Here it is nearly seven o'clock and I'm as hungry as a bear."
"Well," said Betty, cheerfully, "something tells me they have a diner on this train. Come on, girls, let's wash our hands and get something to eat."
The girls hardly knew which they enjoyed the most, their dinner or the novel scenery that slipped past them so swiftly. It was their first venture into this part of the world, and they found the initiation fascinating.
"The trouble is," complained Amy, "it will be dark before long and we'll have to miss all this," with an expressive sweep of her hand toward the car window.
"It is too bad," said Betty, regretfully adding, with a light laugh: "If we were only like the princess in the story, the members of whose royal house never slept, we would probably see more of the scenery."
That night the girls proved that Grace was not alone in her fondness for sleep. There being no more interruptions in the shape of fuming gentlemen on the trail of runaway daughters, they slept soundly through the long hours while the train plunged onward through the inky blackness of the night. They did not stir until the sun, shining on their faces, roused them to the realization that another beautiful day had dawned.
That is, it was beautiful up to noon. Then it clouded down, and they ate lunch while the rain dashed furiously on the windows of the dining car.
"I am thankful we are under cover," said Betty.
"Fancy riding on the ranch in this rain," put in Amy.
"No life in the saddle for me when it rains," broke in Grace.
During the afternoon the girls napped and read. When the time came to get supper they were glad to see that they had run away from the storm and the sun was setting clearly.
"Funny, how sleepy one gets," drawled Grace, about nine o'clock. "I'll not stay up late."
No one wanted to do that, and in less than an hour all were sleeping soundly while the long train rumbled along on its trip westward.
"And this is the day," breathed Mollie the next noon, as they made their way from the dining car through some half dozen other cars to their own. "Betty, I feel as if I couldn't wait to see your beautiful ranch."
"I wonder," said Grace as they dropped into their seats once more, "if those cowboys are really as good-looking as you say, Betty. I must admit," she added, as she viewed the rather monotonous landscape petulantly, "I haven't seen anything that looks like a cowboy yet."
"Goodness, hear the child!" cried Betty airily. "She hasn't been near a ranch, yet she expects to see whole droves of cow-punchers——"
"Look," Mollie interrupted, grasping her arm. They were slowing down at a station and there were no less than three picturesque looking young fellows loitering about the place. One was astride an extremely nervous horse that shied as the train puffed to a standstill and rose on his hind legs as though trying his best to shake his rider off. "There's a real show for you," Mollie cried joyfully. "How does that look to you, Gracie? True to life?"
"Um, that's better," admitted Grace, while the girls craned their necks for a better view of the horseman. "Now if they only have that sort of thing at Gold Run——"
"Well, we'll have a chance to find out pretty soon whether they do or not," broke in Betty, the thrill of suppressed excitement in her voice. "Dad says we ought to get there in an hour."
"An hour!" wailed Amy, as the train jolted on its way once more and the romantic group on the station were lost to view. "And I thought we were almost there!"
But the hour passed more quickly than the girls had anticipated, for the view from the car windows, becoming more and more interesting, absorbed their attention. As a general rule the country was flat, but now and then in the background could be caught glimpses of heavily wooded mountain ranges that would offer chances for all sorts of adventures to the four eager Outdoor Girls.
"I wonder if there are wild animals in those woods," said Amy, her eyes widening at the thought. "Real ones."
"You don't suppose they import stuffed ones, do you?" asked Grace dryly.
"Of course there are wild animals—lots of 'em," said Betty, feeling more and more gloriously excited as they neared their destination. "Maybe we can borrow a gun or two from the cow-punchers and have a shot at 'em—animals, I mean, not cow-punchers," she explained, with a giggle.
On top of these rather wild imaginings came Mr. Nelson, telling them it was time to get their things together, for they were within a few minutes of Gold Run.
"I know how long it takes you girls to put a hat on," he laughed. "So I think you had better start right away."
Then—Gold Run! with the dash for the door and Grace running back to rescue a half-empty but still precious candy box and Mollie wanting to know if Amy would please stop pressing her suitcase in the middle of her back——
Someway, Mr. Nelson managed to get them all safely to the station platform, whereupon he breathed a sigh of relief.
"Whew! that's the hardest job you ever gave me, Rose," he remarked to his wife, with a chuckle.
Here, as at most of the other stations, was a handful of cowboys who had come to meet the train. One of these, a handsome young fellow, detached himself from the rest and approached Mrs. Nelson, sweeping off his sombrero as he did so.
"Mrs. Nelson, ma'am?" he asked in a soft drawl that captivated the girls immediately.
Mrs. Nelson smiled assent and the young fellow indicated a buckboard drawn up to the station.
"I brought the wagon," he said, with a grin that showed a beautiful set of white teeth. "An' some saddle hosses, thinkin' you might like to ride——"
However, the ladies decided on the buckboard, which was driven by a shy-eyed, sandy-haired young fellow who gave the girls one frightened glance and looked swiftly away again, for all the world, Mollie said afterwards, as if he expected them to bite him.
Mr. Nelson elected to ride horseback with Andy Rawlinson, which was the name of the good-looking cowboy.
As the driver chirruped to the horses and they clattered over the bumpy road, Grace turned to Betty with a smile.
"I have realized the ambition of a life time!" she said dramatically. "I have seen one handsome cowboy!"
AT THE RANCH
To the girls, that jolting ride was like an adventure straight from the Arabian Nights. The fact that they were squeezed four in a seat which was meant to accommodate only three, served to dampen their enthusiasm not a trifle. Mrs. Nelson, riding in front with the bashful driver, vainly sought to engage him in conversation. After repeated failures she settled down to enjoy the ride in silence.
A dozen yards or so ahead of them Andy Rawlinson and Mr. Nelson cantered up the dusty road, their horses' hoofs making the dust fly in a white cloud.
"Goodness!" sneezed Betty, extracting a small handkerchief from her pocket and applying it to her nose, "I do hope those two keep their distance. We'll be simply choked with dust."
"I wonder," said Grace, as she rubbed her dust-filled eyes, "if they don't have any rain in this part of the world."
"Of course they do; only this happens to be the dry season," said Mollie, instructively, from the heights of her superior intelligence. At least, that is what she called it.
"I'll say it's dry," grumbled Grace.
"Ooh, look," Amy interrupted ecstatically. "Isn't that a cactus over there? Oh, I've wanted all my life to see some real cacti. Now I know we're in the West."
The girls were silent for a moment, gazing out over the rolling plain—a plain studded with stunted trees and sickly-looking bushes with here and there a cactus plant for variety's sake—out to the hazy mountains beyond, serene, calm, majestic, jutting jaggedly into the dazzling blue of a cloudless sky.
"The mountains!" murmured Betty, half to herself. "How I love them. The plains are fascinating in a cruelly romantic way, but somehow the mountains make one think of hidden springs rushing swiftly into noisy foolish little brooks, of bird songs, and the smell of cool damp earth, of the crackling of dry twigs under one's feet, and the pungent woodsy smell of camp fires—but there," she broke off confusedly, as she realized the girls were regarding her with fond amusement. "I didn't mean to wax so poetic."
"It's all right, honey," said Mollie, giving her hand a warm little squeeze. "You rave right along. I know just how you feel, for I get that way myself sometimes."
"There is something mighty wonderful about the mountains," added Grace softly.
"Oh, I love them, too," broke in Amy, adding with such earnestness that the girls looked at her wonderingly. "They are everything that Betty has said. And yet when Betty spoke of the plains as being cruel I couldn't help wondering if the mountains weren't sometimes like that, too."
"What do you mean?" they queried, with quick interest.
"I was thinking," Amy continued slowly, "that the mountains might not seem so kind to one who was lost in them—without a gun perhaps. I have heard Will say that a person who had no knowledge of woodcraft would find it almost impossible to recover his path, once he had lost it. And," she added, with a shudder, her eyes fixed steadily on the distant mountain range, "there are wild animals in those forests."
"Of course there are," agreed Betty lightly, as she saw how serious the girls' faces had become. "Oodles of foxes and bears and raccoons and things. Why, how would you expect to get pretty furs when you wanted them if those things didn't exist? Cheer up, Amy dear. We're a long way from being lost in the woods without a gun!"
A minute later the girls lost interest in everything but the immediate present. For, in the distance, but distinctly visible, loomed a long low ranch house which the silent driver beside Mrs. Nelson deigned to admit was on Gold Run Ranch.
"You see it, girls?" cried the lady, turning a beaming face to the girls. "You know, I feel just like a little girl with a beautiful new toy."
"And we're awfully glad you've got the toy, Mrs. Nelson," said Grace, fervently.
"Look," cried Mollie suddenly. "Your father and that cowboy are turning off from the main road. That must be where the ranch begins. Oh, girls, oh, girls, I'm glad I came!"
A few minutes later their jolting buckboard turned in after the two horsemen, and since the new road proved to be nothing but two deep ruts worn in the grass and as the ponies attached to the buckboard showed considerable excitement at coming near home, the girls found themselves holding on to each other convulsively to keep from being thrown out on the stubbly grass at the side of the road.
"Whew, I'm glad that's over!" exclaimed Mollie, as the driver drew in the rearing horses and spoke to them soothingly. "Come on, girls," she added, making ready to jump out. "I'm going to remove myself from this buckboard before one of those horses decides to sit in my lap."
The girls laughed and followed her with alacrity.
"Oh," cried Betty, hugging Amy ecstatically, simply because she happened to be the nearest one to hug. "There are the horse corrals over there! And, oh, girls! look at the cows, dozens and dozens and dozens of 'em. Mother," she cried, turning wide-eyed to the latter, "do all those 'anymiles' really belong to you?"
"I presume they do, dear," said Mrs. Nelson, her own face flushed with excitement. "I can't quite take in the amazing truth of it yet."
They were standing beside the first of a long line of low buildings that seemed little more than glorified sheds and which the girls decided must be the "bunk houses" for the ranch hands.
And while they were wondering if it would be possible to slip over to the corrals for a closer look at the horses, Mr. Nelson sauntered up to them, with handsome Andy Rawlinson keeping diffidently a little in the rear.
"It's nearly supper time," he informed them smiling. "And Andy here," he indicated young Rawlinson, who grinned an acknowledgment, "says that everybody has supper sharp on the minute of six. So what do you say if we go up to the house and have a little refreshment?"
The girls were not altogether reluctant to obey, much as they desired a closer look at the bronchos, for they realized that they were pretty hungry.
The ranch house was one of those quaint old structures which had begun as a tiny, one-story frame cottage and had gradually been added to until now it seemed, Betty said, to "spread all over the landscape." It had porches and doors in the most unexpected places, but the whole house was painted such an immaculate white and the shutters were such a friendly green that the effect of the place was indescribably charming.
"If the house is as clean inside as it looks outside," whispered Grace to Betty as Andy Rawlinson led them up on to one of the many porches, "I'll never dare go in. I never felt so mussy and dirty in all my life."
"Never mind, we're all in the same boat," said Betty encouragingly, and then they stepped into one of the pleasantest rooms they had ever seen.
It was big and cool and airy, in spite of the fact that supper preparations were going on at one end of it. Rough picturesque looking chairs were scattered about, and over near the windows a long table was invitingly set for six. And oh, the delicious odor of cooking things that was wafted on the air!
At sight of them a stout but immaculately neat and rosy-faced woman left whatever she was doing with a frying pan on the stove and came over to them, wiping her hands on her apron, her face wreathed in smiles.
"Go long with you, Andy Rawlinson," she cried as the youth lingered rather awkwardly in the doorway. "There's no need for you to tell me who these folks are, for I already know them for the new master and his lady and the young ladies, bless their pretty sweet faces. Come right in, all of you, and Lizzie here," turning to a wholesome-looking, mouse-haired girl who had come in from the other room, "Lizzie will take you to see the rooms and you can have your pick. But don't be long," she cautioned, as they started to follow Lizzie and she turned back to her frying pan on the stove, "for supper is all ready and you must be nearly famished."
If the girls had been impressed by the quaintness of this quaint old house from the outside, they were even more delighted by its interior.
They passed down a rather dark and narrow hall at the end of which were three low steps leading to such a series of rooms as the girls had never seen before, each furnished neatly but plainly, the only touch of color being the gay cretonne curtains at the windows. The rooms all seemed to be connected by doors and to reach these doors one was obliged to go up two steps or down three or up one, as the case might be.
"Goodness," cried Betty, when Lizzie had led the way through three of these quaint little rooms and the open doors seemed to reveal several others, "I wonder if all these rooms were really occupied."
"Yes, miss," said Lizzie, halting and speaking unexpectedly. "They was a time when these rooms wuz all filled. Old Mr. Barcolm"—this being the name of Mrs. Nelson's great uncle—"had a many children and grandchildren an' seemed like he was sot on 'em all livin' with him. But they got to quarrelin' and all left th' old man an' he was so mad he cut 'em all out o' his will. At least," she finished, as though warned by the intent look of her listeners that she had said more than she had intended to, "that's what they says. But mebbe it ain't the truth, fer all I knows."
Then she led them on again through the maze of rooms while the girls thought amazedly of what she had told them. Finally she came to a stop in a room, larger than the rest, and turned her rather stolid gaze upon Mr. and Mrs. Nelson.
"Miz Cummins," she announced, dully—the girls were afterward to find out that Cummins was the name of the rosy-faced woman who had met them so cordially at the door and who seemed to be general housekeeper for the place—"Miz Cummins thought as how this would be a good room fer the mister and missus. They is some nice rooms back of these fer the young ladies. She sed, if you liked any of the other rooms better, to take your pick. They's fresh water in the pitchers," indicating a washstand with a bowl and two pitchers of gleaming water upon it, "an' if you want anythin' else, you wuz please to tell me." And with these words, uttered so precisely that it sounded like a rehearsed speech, which, in fact, it was, Lizzie disappeared, leaving the travelers to themselves.
"Come on, girls," cried Betty, pushing them before her into the next room. "Let's see what kind of rooms 'Miz Cummins' has picked out for us."
They were not at all unusual rooms, being both about the same size and nearly square and furnished about as simply as they could possibly be.
"If it weren't for the different colored cretonne at the windows," said Mollie, with a chuckle, "these rooms might be twins. You and Grace can have the lavender cretonne, Amy, and Betty and I will take the blue."
"Don't those beds look heavenly?" sighed Grace, as she pulled off her hat and threw herself upon the big, snowy-sheeted bed.
"Goodness!" cried Amy, in dismay. "She's flopped. Get her up, somebody, before she gets the bed so dirty I can't sleep in it to-night."
For answer Betty made a dash for Grace, pulled her to her feet, and pushed her over to the washstand.
"See that water, Grace Ford?" she cried sternly. "Now use it!"
"And make it snappy," added Mollie slangily, as she and Betty disappeared into the adjoining room. "I can smell 'Miz Cummins'' cooking clear in here!"
A SUDDEN STORM
The girls spent the rest of that day getting acquainted, at which agreeable task Andy Rawlinson, the head cowboy, assisted pleasantly. The latter introduced them to several others of the ranch hands, all of whom were as picturesque and good-natured as Andy himself.
Escorted by Rawlinson and followed by the admiring glances of the other cowboys, the girls were introduced to the interior of the bunk houses which, with their rude wooden cots built into the side of the walls, their scanty and rather severe furniture, and the romantic looking trophies fastened to the bare boards of the walls, filled the girls with curiosity and interest.
Then on to the corrals, where some spectacular broncho busting was staged for the sole benefit of the visitors. In this dangerous business Andy himself took a part, and the girls gasped with dismay and later with admiration as the boy ran alongside a vicious looking animal for a few paces, then flung himself recklessly upon the beast's back and clung there, seemingly defying all the laws of gravitation.
"Oh, he surely will be killed!" cried Amy, clutching Betty in terror. "That horse will throw him——"
"Keep quiet, can't you, Amy?" cried Mollie impatiently, beside herself with excitement. "Don't you suppose he has ever done this sort of thing before?"
Then followed such an exhibition of sheer grit and skill and dauntless courage as none of the girls would ever forget.
The vicious brute raced madly around and around the corrals, cruel head upflung, nostrils dilated, but still the man upon his back clung with maddening persistence. Then he stopped so suddenly that the man was almost flung over his lowered head and the girls held their breath, but Andy recovered himself and touching the spurs to the beast's belly, sent it flying round the corral once more. There was sweat on its body and the flaring nostrils were blood red with the effort, but the spirit of the beast was still unbroken.
Around and around the ring he plunged, the other horses galloping wildly from his path, then suddenly as though the thing on his back had maddened him past bearing, he began to buck and to plunge and to rear himself on his hind legs in a desperate effort to throw himself backward, until it seemed to the fascinated, terrified girls that Andy Rawlinson surely must be killed.
But Andy Rawlinson had not spent his twenty-eight years in the saddle for nothing. He clung to that horse's back as though he had been a part of him, and when the outraged beast tried to throw himself over backward for the second time, Andy evidently decided that he had played enough.
A cruel blow of his spurred heel brought the beast almost to its knees with a whinny of pain. Then it jumped high in the air, and once more began its furious race with this mysterious and horrible being that clung so tenaciously to his back.
Andy rode him hard, cruelly hard, and when the beast, panting, sweating, beaten, would have stopped he dug the spurs in and drove him on, on, until the broncho's breath came in sobbing gasps and his legs trembled under him.
Betty, who could never bear to see anything hurt, shouted to Andy Rawlinson as man and beast came abreast of her:
"Isn't that enough?" she cried. "You've beaten him. Stop! Please stop!"
And Andy Rawlinson, flashing his pleasant smile, flung himself from his mount, while the beautiful horse stood there, quivering, head hung in shame——
"Game hoss, that," said Andy, as he vaulted the low railing and approached the girls. "Fought like a thoroughbred."
"And you were wonderful," cried Betty, with her warm impulsiveness. "I never saw finer riding. We were all afraid you were going to be killed."
Andy was pleased, but he looked at Betty rather quizzically.
"Strange," he drawled, with a smile on his face, "strange what impressions you get sometimes. Now I kind o' thought you was mad at me, the way you called out to stop. Anyways, you looked mad."
"I was only sorry for the horse," Betty explained gravely. "He was game, as you say, and I hated to see his spirit entirely broken."
Andy Rawlinson looked at her with admiring approval in his nice eyes.
"There speaks the real lover of animals," he cried enthusiastically. "I hate to break a good hoss myself, but you see it has to be done—for the sake of the hoss. A hoss that's a bad actor is mighty like a mad dog. It has to be killed—or broke. So we break 'em. But now," he said, glancing toward the corrals, "I reckon you young ladies would like to pick out some nice gentle hosses to ride while you're here."
The girls nodded and crowded forward eagerly while Andy called to some of the cowboys who had been lingering enviously near.
"Bring out the sorrel and Nigger, will you, Jake?" he said to one of them. "I'll corral Lady and Nabob."
The girls watched with interest while the boys corraled the four horses Andy had selected and led them forth for the visitors' inspection.
They were splendid specimens of horse flesh, and for a moment the girls were simply lost in admiration. Nigger, as his name implied, was a magnificent coal-black animal without a speck of white upon him anywhere. He and Betty seemed to form a mutual admiration society on the instant, for with a gentle whinny he cantered up to the girl and began nosing inquisitively in her pocket in search of sugar. Luckily Betty had brought some with her, and she fed a couple of lumps to the beautiful animal, thereby definitely sealing their pact of friendship.
"Oh you, Nigger!" crooned Betty joyfully, as she rubbed the velvet muzzle. "You and I are going to be great little pals, aren't we? You perfect old darling!" And Nigger whinnied again and nosed about for more sugar.
"Well, I like that," cried Grace, breaking the silence in which they had all been enjoyably regarding the little scene. "Betty doesn't have to choose her horse—it chooses her."
"Oh well, Betty always did have a way with her," laughed Mollie, and promptly turned her attention to the remaining three horses.
"Lady" was a lovely white filly with whom Amy fell in love immediately.
"This one's mine," she cried, putting a possessive hand on Lady's flank while the latter turned her dainty head and regarded the girl out of softly-wistful brown eyes. "I wanted her as soon as I saw her."
Her claim was not disputed, for Grace was raving over the horse called Nabob, who was, by a strange coincidence, that very light tan color which she most adored.
"How did you know I always wanted a horse just like this?" she cried, turning joyfully to Andy Rawlinson who, with the other "boys" had been looking on amusedly.
"Well," drawled Andy, with a grin, "seems like you are all suited pretty well."
For Mollie, whose adventurous spirit craved a spice of the dangerous in everything, had taken immediately to the sorrel, who had apparently been given no name. He was a skittish horse, gentle, as Andy explained, but "pow'ful nervous—had to be sort o' coaxed along."
"You're my horse, all right," Mollie declared, stroking the animal's muzzle fearlessly, unmindful of rolling eyes and nervously twitching ears. "I don't like 'em too tame, old boy. And by the way," she added, struck by a sudden inspiration, "I've thought of just the name for you. I'm going to call you 'Old Nick.'"
And so, when the selection had been made, to everybody's satisfaction, nothing would do but the girls must try their mounts that very evening. They had brought their riding tags in preparation for their summer in the saddle, and when they had slipped into the tight breeches, and leather leggings, tailored coat, and snug fitting hat, they looked like what they were—four thoroughly modern and very pretty Outdoor Girls.
Later, when they rode proudly about the ranch on their splendid mounts, the ranch hands were lost in admiration of them.
"Gosh," said one, removing his hat and fanning himself with it, for the evening was warm, "when Andy said they was four girls comin' from the city to visit us I was plumb skeered. But these here girls, they ain't no ordinary kind, no siree. An' they sho' does know how to ride."
However, the girls were satisfied with a rather short ride that evening for they were out of practice and they knew that sore muscles would be the price of over-exertion.
In the days that followed they took longer and longer rides, even venturing along the rough forest trails when Andy Rawlinson was with them as guide and protector. Mr. and Mrs. Nelson rode, too, but, not being as strenuous as the girls, they were glad to have any one as capable as Andy Rawlinson to look out for their charges.
But one day, much as they liked him, the girls got a little tired of Andy's chaperonage, and at Mollie's suggestion they decided to "give him the slip."
"Anybody would think he was our granny, the way he dictates to us," she complained, as she flicked a fly from Old Nick's side, thereby causing him to shy wildly. "We know our way about all right now, and I'm sure we Outdoor Girls never needed anybody to look out for us, anyway."
"Hear, hear," laughed Betty, half way between conviction and protest. "I don't like to have Andy around all the time, any more than you do, Mollie, but I'm not sure that we know our way about as well as we might. If we should get lost——"
"Oh, don't be an old wet blanket," cried Mollie impatiently, and as Amy and Grace seemed for once to be of her mind, Betty had nothing to do but to surrender as gracefully as she could.
It was after lunch that the girls managed to slip away without being observed to where their mounts were tethered at the edge of the woodland. And oh, what a glorious sense of freedom when they were mounted and cantering down a cool forest trail—alone!
They had been this way with Andy before, so they had no fear of losing their path and they urged their horses to more and more speed, intoxicated by the sense of freedom.
What they did not notice was that the sun had disappeared behind an ominous bank of clouds and the wind was rising threateningly. And so they were caught fairly and squarely by the deluge that swept upon them with a bewildering suddenness.
Where to go? Where to turn for shelter from the driving rain and moaning wind? They checked their horses while they gazed at each other wildly.
Suddenly Betty's straining eyes made out what seemed to be the outline of a little shed or cabin, half hidden by surrounding foliage.
"There's a house over there," she cried, hastily dismounting and tying Nigger to a tree a little off the path. "Maybe whoever lives there will let us in till the rain stops."
The girls followed her example and hurriedly made their way on foot toward their one hope of refuge. When they reached the house Betty started to knock, then paused uncertainly, her hand uplifted. For above the beat of the rain and the shrill whine of the wind came a strain of music, mournful, yet exquisitely beautiful. Amazed, forgetful of their discomfort, the girls listened while the throbbing, haunting melody wailed itself to a close.
"I—I've heard that music before," Betty murmured, then rapped gently, almost timidly, on the door.
ALONG THE TRAIL
Betty's knock had to be repeated twice before the occupant of the cabin responded.
"Knock harder, Betty, if——" Mollie was beginning when the door opened at last and a very strange person stood upon the threshold. Tall, with stooped shoulders and a head bent a little as though he had spent countless hours over his violin, with long, curly hair, and with the visioned eyes of the musician, the man was a figure that would have made people turn to stare at him anywhere.
"I—we—we are very sorry to trouble you," said Betty hesitatingly, as the musician made no effort to break the silence. "But it is raining hard, as you see, and we thought——"
The man started and frowned.
"Ah yes, of course," he said, moving aside and motioning them into the room. "You will find shelter here, but very little else, I fear."
As the girls entered rather hesitantly the man turned from them abruptly and, lifting the violin that lay upon the rough board table, he began with the utmost gentleness to put it in its case. The girls had the rather uncomfortable impression that the man was forcing himself to be polite to them—that if he had been any other than a gentleman he would have refused them admittance.
They looked uneasily at each other and then toward the one window in the room, and one thought was in the minds of all of them—to escape from the enforced hospitality of this man.
"I think the rain is letting up a little," said Grace softly.
"I reckon we won't have to stay more than a few minutes," agreed Betty, then, as their long-haired host put down his case and turned toward them, she ventured a shy compliment.
"We heard you playing as we came along," she said. "It was very wonderful."
"Thank you," said the man gruffly, and turned away so abruptly that Betty felt as if some one had struck her.
Mollie looked indignant and Amy put an arm about Betty as she whispered:
"The rain has nearly stopped, honey. Don't you think we had better go?"
So, with half-hearted expressions of thanks from the girls and no expression of regret at all from the man, the new acquaintances parted, the girls hurrying down the dripping path to where their horses were tethered.
Once Mollie looked back toward the cabin, and her indignation burst forth.
"Look, he could hardly wait for us to get outside to shut the door," she said. "Of all the ill-mannered——"
"Oh, I don't think he meant to be ill-mannered," interposed Betty mildly, as she reached Nigger and he whinnied a welcome. "He was just distantly polite, that's all. He didn't want to be bothered, probably, and he had a hard time to keep from showing it."
"Huh," grunted Mollie, as she flung herself upon Old Nick's back and patted him soothingly. "I'm sure he has some real reason for not wanting folks around. He acted mighty funny to me," she said.
"Goodness, hear the child!" cried Grace, as they rode swiftly back the way they had come through the fine drizzle. "She never can resist making a thief or something out of a perfectly ordinary person."
"Seems to me he is anything but ordinary," interposed Amy thoughtfully. "No ordinary person could play the violin the way he was playing it when we came up to the house. That sounded like the work of a master."
"Yes," agreed Betty, a faraway look in her eyes. "He plays exquisitely, if he does live in a little house away up in the woods. And I can't shake off the impression that I have heard that same selection played in just that same way somewhere before."
Though this first excursion had been somewhat of a failure, the girls were by no means discouraged and in the days that followed they rode almost constantly. Finally they began to know their way about like the natives.
Their rides were taken mostly in the open country, however, for in the woods they knew lurked very real dangers. But these they avoided more to save Mrs. Nelson worry than from any personal fears.
But one day, feeling more than usually adventurous and growing more and more confident of their ability to find their way around alone, they dared venture along a rocky trail that offered wonderful romantic opportunities.
"Oh, this is the life!" cried Grace, as Nabob stepped daintily over the rocks and underbrush that almost completely overgrew the narrow path. "A peach of a horse under you, the whole day before you, and nothing to do but enjoy yourself. Whoa-up there, Nabob. What's the matter with you?" for the horse had whinnied softly and shied almost imperceptibly to the side of the trail.
At the same time the other horses seemed to catch some of Nabob's uneasiness, and the girls were kept busy for the next few minutes soothing them and coaxing them back into a normal mode of progress.
"Something scared them," said Amy nervously. "Don't you think we had better go back, girls? This trail seems to be getting narrower and narrower. I don't believe anybody comes along here very often."
"Well, what of it?" cried Mollie sharply. "That's what we are here for, isn't it? If we wanted people, we could have plenty of them right back on the ranch."
"Stop quarreling, girls," said Betty, matter-of-factly. "We'll eat pretty soon and that will make everybody feel better." Kindly Mrs. Cummins had put up an appetizing lunch for the girls.
"Look!" she cried a moment later, as the trail broadened out and they reached a rather open space in the woods through which they could look straight down—for they were on a considerable elevation—into the thriving little mining town of Gold Run. "I didn't know you could see Gold Run from here."
"Doesn't it look funny and tiny?" cried Mollie, reining in beside her. "It must be an awfully long way off."
"Wouldn't this be a good place to eat?" queried Amy hopefully, and the girls laughed at her.
"We aren't hungry enough yet," said Betty, as she turned her horse to continue down the trail.
They rode on, following the trail as it wound deeper and deeper into the woodland, catching glimpses now and then of the mining camp down in the hollow.
It seemed as if they were really getting closer to Gold Run and, fascinated by the new game they were playing, forgetting their fears in the new sights and sounds all about them, the girls rode farther and farther into the heart of a forest, whose smiling face often served to hide some hideous danger.
But to the girls all was beauty and sunshine and they conversed merrily as they cantered along.
"When is Allen coming, Betty?" asked Grace. "I had an idea he would be here before this."
"Why, dad has written, asking him to come as soon as he can," answered Betty, striving to look unconscious. "You know what that girl Lizzie said about mother's relatives—she never knew she had them till she came here—and dad thinks some of these people may make up their minds to contest the will. They haven't made trouble yet—but you never can tell. Listen, girls," she added suddenly. "Will you promise not to breathe a word of it if I tell you a big secret?"
"Hope to die," they chorused piously.
"Well, our old friend Peter Levine has been around pestering mother again."
At this news, Grace, who was riding ahead, checked her mount so suddenly that Betty had all she could do to keep Nigger from swallowing Nabob's tail.
"For goodness' sake, put out your hand when you do that next time," laughed Betty.
"Well," said Grace as she gave Nabob a gentle slap that started him on again, "Peter Levine must want that ranch very badly, to be following us all over the continent this way."
"He seems to be rather anxious," said Betty dryly. "He has offered mother twenty thousand for it this time."
"Going up," cried Mollie, with a chuckle. "If your mother holds on much longer, Betty, she will be a millionaire."
"Well, mother is more certain than ever that there is something unusual about Gold Run Ranch," went on Betty, as she urged Nigger up a gentle slope. "She confidently expects to discover a gold mine, and so that's another reason why she thinks Allen ought to be here."
"Goodness, let's all get out and dig," cried Mollie.
"Can we have all we find, Betty?" called Amy, with a laugh.
"Every last gold brick," answered Betty happily, and then they came upon another open space, and there, lying not more than half a mile below them, was the mining town of Gold Run.
"Now here's the place to have some lunch," said Betty, slipping to the ground and leading Nigger off a little way into the woods where she tethered him securely. "We can look right down into the town and eat our lunch at the same time."
The girls followed suit, and it did not take them long afterward to discover that they were very hungry. So out came the lunch basket, and never did biscuits and cheese and fried chicken taste more delicious than they did to the girls right there in that romantic little spot in the woods.
"I hope it doesn't rain the way it did the other day," said Mollie, as she lazily surveyed a cloudless sky.
"We haven't even a cabin in the woods to go to this time," said Grace, adding, as the thought brought up a picture of the long-haired musician who had been so painfully polite: "I wonder what our friend, Long Hair, lives on, anyway. Maybe he goes out and kills bears and things. They say bear meat is very good eating," she added reflectively.
"Maybe we can catch one ourselves and take it home for dinner," suggested Mollie, and the girls looked as if they did not like her suggestion at all.
"Methinks the bear would be more likely to catch us," Betty was saying when a chorus of low whinnyings and stampings coming from where the horses were tethered caused them to jump to their feet in alarm. Suddenly the nervousness of the animals changed to panic and they began to rear and plunge, straining madly at the tethering straps, snorting and screaming with terror.
"Look!" cried Mollie, her voice shrilling above the noise. "There! In the woods! Oh, run for your lives, girls! Run!"
Coming toward the girls through the trees, crouched low, sinister eyes fixed upon them, were two great timber wolves. The girls, terrified as they were, saw at a glance that it would be of no use to run, the movement would only infuriate the beasts and precipitate their attack.
"The trees!" gasped Betty, feeling herself in the grip of the deadly inertia that one experiences sometimes in a nightmare. "Make for the trees, girls; they are our only chance."
Luckily, the branches of the trees swung low to the ground, or the girls could never have saved themselves. As it was, they had barely time to swing themselves free of the ground when the great beasts darted into the open, fangs bared, snarling hideously. Then——
Bang! Bang! Two sharp reports from the direction of the woodland and one of the wolves sprang clear of the ground, then slunk into the underbrush, while the other staggered, fell, struggled to its feet, fell again, and after one convulsive movement, lay still.
While the girls stared, unable to follow this swift turn of events, there was the sound of running feet coming in their direction and the next moment two figures broke through into the cleared space.
One was a little wizened man who seemed, for all his apparent age, extremely agile. The other was a girl, a splendid, big creature, who stood as tall as the man, and who, like him, carried a rifle.
The two ran to the fallen animal, talking excitedly, and turned it over to be sure it was dead. They were so absorbed that they did not notice the girls, who dropped down quietly from their perches in the trees. The sight of the guns carried by the newcomers had had a tremendously reassuring effect upon them. The wonderful sensation of relief that swept over them as they realized their almost miraculous escape, was so keen as to be almost pain.
Still, they were not quite free from fear as they approached the prostrate body of the big beast, over which their rescuers were still bending. It was the girl who first discovered them.
"Hello!" she cried, straightening up and turning upon the girls a frank regard. "You was the ones this old boy was after, eh? Look, Dad," she added, pointing to where the four horses were still bucking and snorting in fright. "There's the hosses we heard, but I reckon 'twas these gals the wolves was after."